Guest Post: Behavioral Economics, Punishment, and Faith in the Fight Against Corruption

The following guest post, by Roberto de Michele, Principal Specialist in the Institutional Capacity of the State Division at the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), is a translated and slightly modified version of a post that Mr. de Michele originally published in Spanish on the IDB’s governance blog on August 29, 2016:

Last August, Hugo Alconada Mon, one of Argentina’s most prestigious investigative journalists, published an article (in Spanish) describing how road construction firms in Argentina created a cartel to fix public work contracts. Members of the cartel would meet in the board room of the sector chamber to conduct their business. The room has a statue of Our Lady of Luján, patroness of Argentina. Before commencing negotiations to fix contracts, assign “winners,” and distribute earnings, members of the cartel would turn around the image of Our Lady of Luján to face the wall, with her back to those gathered there. It was, as one of the sources candidly put it, “so that she doesn’t see what we were about to do.” This remark got me thinking about two possible explanations on why we break the law, cheat, and lie both to the government and to others. Continue reading

Larger Governments Have Less Corruption (Part 2 – Possible Explanations)

In my last post, I argued that the familiar hypothesis—advanced by Gary Becker and others—that big governments are associated with more corruption is inconsistent with the available cross-country empirical evidence. In fact, though the results of different studies are not entirely consistent, the weight of the evidence seems to suggest that (controlling for other possible correlates), countries that have larger governments—defined primarily as those that have higher levels of government spending as a percentage of GDP—have lower levels of perceived corruption, as measured by the familiar indexes, such as Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI). Again, there are some questions about the robustness of this negative correlation—some studies find that it is statistically significant, while others do not—but there’s enough supporting evidence that I think it’s fair to (tentatively) treat this correlation as genuine.

Perhaps in hindsight this shouldn’t be so surprising. Putting aside multiple regression and other fancy statistical techniques, if one just eyeballs the CPI “league table,” it’s clear that the group of countries that consistently score near the top of the rankings include lots of countries—particularly countries in Northern and Western Europe—with quite large governments (such as Denmark, Sweden, Belgium, Norway, the Netherlands, Finland, and Iceland), while the bottom of the CPI list includes countries with very small governments. (Even if one excludes barely functioning states, like Somalia, the bottom group in the CPI includes small-government states like Bangladesh, Cambodia, Haiti, Russia, and the Central African Republic). Of course, this by itself doesn’t tell us much, especially given the well-established correlation between GDP and the government spending/GDP ratio—but, again, multiple regression techniques that control for GDP and other factors show that the positive correlation is genuine, and the handful of favorite examples often trotted out to suggest that small governments are the key to lower corruption (like Singapore and Hong Kong) are in fact statistical outliers.

So let’s assume that, as most studies seem to show, there’s a negative correlation between the government spending/GDP ratio and perceived corruption. What’s the explanation for this?

The short answer is that I don’t know, and I’m not aware of any research that really nails this down. But here are a few possibilities, some cribbed from existing papers, others based on my own wild speculations: Continue reading

Larger Governments Have Less Corruption (Part 1 – The Evidence)

Many people believe that one of the most important root causes of public corruption is “big government.” This view was perhaps captured most famously and most succinctly by Gary Becker, the late Nobel Laureate economist, who declared (in a couple of memorable op-ed headlines), “If you want to cut corruption, cut government” and “to root out corruption, boot out big government.” Professor Becker was not what you would call cautious or circumspect in advancing this claim: He insisted that “instituting large cuts in the scope of government is the only surefire way to reduce corruption,” and that without such cuts even the most well-intentioned anticorruption reforms and crackdowns would fail, because “corruption always reemerges wherever governments have a major impact on economic conditions.” Though Professor Becker was perhaps the most blunt (and famous) advocate for this view, many others have taken this position. (See here, here, here, and here.) Indeed, a while back I attended an anticorruption conference at which a former senior minister of a European country (whose identity I cannot disclose due to the conference’s confidentiality rules) declared that the key to reducing corruption in his country was the decision to drastically shrink the public sector, slashing taxes, public spending, and the overall size of government–and this ex-official called on other countries to follow that advice as well.

But before we go charging ahead advising countries that the only way that they can get their corruption problem under control is to cut their governments, it might make sense to assess whether the available empirical evidence actually supports Becker’s hypothesis. Is it true that (all else equal) countries with larger governments have more corruption, compared to countries with smaller governments?

The answer is no. If anything, the evidence cuts in the opposite direction. Continue reading